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Interview: David Rodigan

Interview: David Rodigan

Interview: David Rodigan

By on - Photos by Christian Bordey - Comment

"When I first broadcast in Jamaica I realized the true power of radio"

David Rodigan has been called many things in his life: an ambassador for reggae, a showman, a legend. But in factual terms he has to be one of the best known broadcasters and selectors in the music. The son of a treasury officer from a mining village in Kirkcaldy, Scotland, David was born in Hanover and grew up in Libya as a small child and as a teenager in Oxford. In the early 1970s he defied his father’s wishes and trained as an actor before his love of both performance and reggae got him a job at BBC Radio London. In 1983 he visited Jamaica where Barry G challenged him to a clash live on air, a event that began his second career as a soundclash champion, travelling the world to take on all comers. Now approaching his 60s, and in a climate of reduction for specialist radio, Mr Rodigan has become more outspoken at what he sees as a bad patch for Jamaican recordings, increasingly supporting foreign artists like Collie Buddz, YT and Alborosie, and the dubstep movement in the UK. An appearance before young dubstep fans at the London superclub Fabric led to the release of his 'Fabric Live 54' cd where all kinds of Jamaican and Jamaican-inspired music are given typically seamless mix - proving that while Rodigan definitely has the tunes it's still what he does with them that counts. Angus Taylor spoke to David in the spring at the studios of Kiss FM where he presents their Sunday night reggae show.

David Rodigan

You’ve been getting more and more into dubstep recently – what has dubstep done for the UK reggae scene?

What it's done is introduced people to the likes of King Tubby, Lee Perry, Errol Thompson - the engineers, the sound system, the dub engineers of Jamaica, via the music. Because if you discover dubstep you must progress - and I think people do naturally investigate beyond the perimeters of the music as it is. And certainly the reason I've been booked at dubstep gigs is quite specifically to play dub music (not all night!) that I've collected from back in the day so I think there is a direct lineage connecting King Tubby with Caspa, Breakage, all these people. There's a fusion. What King Tubby and the people like him, the engineers in 1972-73 were doing was and is similar to what's happening now. There's something about the breaking down of rhythms and the rebuilding of them which is basically what dubstep and dub in its original form are - that excites people. And in an environment where people are gathered together in hundreds and thousands (and similarly in the drum'n'bass experience) it is a bass experience. It's not really a vocal experience.

What do you like about it?

There's something about the culture which when I've seen and been to dubstep things, the energy current that's created by the music is phenomenal. And I think that they - the young dubstep audience - have identified that in reggae and dub music - and it's led them also into rubadub. Now you and I know what that is and why it's an important part of Jamaican music. Modern dancehall doesn't have that element: the bass, the breakdown, the bounce, the depth - it's too energized. Dubstep, dub music and rubadub music from the 70s and 80s has that. So there is a direct connection and you can hear it and feel it in the music. And I think it has had a profound effect on reggae because I've noticed now when I'm playing at my gigs - and some of them are not necessarily reggae gigs, more dubstep or drum'n'bass gigs - and I'm playing elements of traditional reggae and the crowd is going crazy. You Can Get It If You Really Want by Desmond Dekker is hardly a dubstep record, it's hardly even a dub record, but I tell you what - when it's played it gets a phenomenal forward. Because there's something in that song and many songs like that - whether it's Abyssinians Satta Amassagana I mean you know you love the music - that brings something out in people in terms of its soul, its content, and the essence of it. When you hear it it's like "What was that?"

The essence of soundclash appeals to the ultimate collector

Who was into dubstep first – you or your sons?

Oh, the boys! My eldest son first, Jamie, who has a sound system called Extra Stout and then subsequently Oliver who is four years younger than him. Extra Stout is my son and three other chaps who love Rubadub. Probably what really sums it up Angus would be this, and I've probably told you this before but about 3 years ago I went into my son's bedroom and he was horsing around with that Stop That Train rhythm and I asked him why and he said because it just blew him away. That rhythm was made in '67. Lynn Tait and the Jets. (imitates guitar sound) I remember the first time I ever heard it was when I was at the movies and I went to see The Harder They Come and it was a Brixton cinema and everyone was talking and they had subtitles - it was a bizarre experience. But that sequence when Ras Daniel Hartman's walking down the track and the guitar goes and "Forward and fyaka" I said "What is this?" I remember there was something so haunting about it. And my son when we has 17 got the same experience to such an extent that he created that song which is on the Fabric album – he cleared it with Derrick Harriott- and he built his melody on top of it. I said to him, “why did you do it?” and he said “that guitar you know (imitates guitar again) and the way that rhythm drops" – Lynn Tait and the Jets – what a band. Priceless.

Last time we spoke you were unhappy with the state of reggae. Has anything improved in terms of new artists and tunes.

Yes I think it has. I’m particularly impressed with the album from Protoje which I think is very refreshing. I like the Nyabinghi rhythm which rolled out at the end of last year from the TOK camp. I’m enjoying the new Stephen and Damian Marley tune Jah Army, there’s a Mavado tune I quite like called Pepper, it’s a relatively new rhythm by Stephen McGregor called the Pepper rhythm. There’s also a Stephen McGregor and Vybz Kartel – I almost want to wash my mouth out.

(laughs) Why? 

David RodiganI find a lot of Vybz Kartel stuff sickening because of the subject matter but this one is a warning to young people to avoid dangerous drugs – I forget what it’s called [Careful]  but it’s a one drop rhythm and I like the way it’s been recorded.  Stephen McGregor is very talented – I’d hardly say he was a genius but maybe they’ve put that title on him. Because he’s young and he’s obviously very astute when it comes to working with technology because that’s clearly his strength. Possibly in Jamaica they’re quick to give someone a title if they’re impressed – and he comes from a great heritage from Freddie. I’ll just quickly look at my playlist here [looks in bag] – (must remember to send that birthday card!) the Etana I’m really enjoying her People Talk but I haven’t heard the album. I’ve heard it’s weak in places. Also Beres Hammond’s Keeping It Real, a couple of tracks on the Apple Gabriel album I’m enjoying. I like that Shaggy with Mavado – Girls Dem Love We – I like that. And even though it’s an old rhythm I’m enjoying Macka B’s 45 on that old 54 46 rhythm “Nothing But The 45” talks about vinyl. It’s already shaping up to be an interesting year so far. A couple of nice versions on that message rhythm from Don Corleon – one or two things on there.

Since the 90s you’ve been involved in soundclash. What does soundclash mean to you?

The essence of soundclash appeals to the ultimate collector. It is essentially about people who are so obsessed with the music that they will go almost to any lengths to record something that they have as an exclusive or customised or branded song for themselves. So in essence they will go and get new versions of popular songs recorded personally for them by the artist. That is slightly obsessive behaviour. It’s a bit like a musical boxing match and if you weigh in at the right weight with the right number of dubplates in your right class – whether featherweight, middleweight (I think the boxing analogy works) it’s a bit of a blood sport and the people that come to it want to see action and they want to see a result – they want to see somebody winning and somebody losing. And similarly there are supporters for each sound system who turn up en masse. Sometimes they’re brought in buses by the sound system. There are one or two solo sound selectors but essentially it’s a team work and usually consists of three or four people in a team who work together. There’s a lot of work involved in it – of cutting dubplates and specials and going to the trouble of finding the artists and booking studios. And then the essence of it on the night is to basically show your skills as a mixer and with speeches that reflect what you’re talking about in terms of music and what you’re about to play against your opponent. So it’s a musical boxing match and if it’s performed correctly in the traditions of it, it can be a lot of fun. If it descends into a slanging match it can be unpleasant.  

There’s an upward mobility aspect to soundclash isn’t there? The new people taking on the establishment.

I agree completely and without the new element the music can only be considered to be an old boys network and that’s not acceptable. I frequently encourage new artists and soundsystems. I’ve always done so. I think it’s wrong to hate on young sound system selectors as some sound systems do. It’s a sin. It’s just so unfair. We need new selectors. We need ideas. We need new young blood to come in and take a look at it to turn it on it’s head. If we don’t have that it won’t progress. The only thing I would say is I feel sorry for some young sound systems because it’s impossible for them to get vintage dubplates because the artists have died. And that makes it unfair for the older sound systems. Frequently I deny and refuse to clash with younger sounds because I don’t want to be put in a position – and for a number of years I’ve refused to do the Riddim Clash in Germany - for the simple fact that I didn’t want to be seen to be, without sounding pretentious, showing off or bigging up my chest saying “I can beat all you guys” because I have nothing to prove. Certainly not to young sound systems. I think they should be clashing with each other and that world should develop in its own way. The old boys network – there is a danger with that of it being “here we go again”. How many times can we hear some of those old dubs? I think that’s why the sound system clashing has peaked and now fallen off without doubt.

I feel sorry for some young sound systems because it's impossible for them to get vintage dubplates

You started as an actor. You seem to love performing.

I knew when I was much younger that I enjoyed performing. Elton John summed it up brilliantly when he was interviewed recently by saying, “Yeah I love showing off. And so does Rod Stewart and Mick Jagger. Three of the biggest show offs in show business.” When he said that it struck a chord with me. There is an element of showing off in the extreme version of entertainment because it requires a personality that changes when you go out on stage. I think Robbie Williams said there is a moment on stage when his mad brother joins him. I identify with that because people often say to me the man we see waiting in the wings is not the man we see in a sound clash. Something happens.” I’m aware that something happens but I’m quite sure what it is. I’ve never been able to fully explain it but I know there is a change out there whether it’s just sheer adrenalin that pumps through the body because there is a big adrenalin rush when you go out there – facing 2000 people or 200 it doesn’t matter. You have to entertain.

How has your theatrical training helped you?

OPP – other people’s problems. In the theatre you’re taught never bring your problems onto the stage because the public are not interested in seeing them. They’ve come to see Crown Matrimonial or Henry VI Part 2 or The Tempest and they don’t want a miserable looking actor to come on because he’s just had an argument with his girlfriend. They’re not interested. When you walk on stage, you are there to entertain. I realized that when I first did a school play which was Our Town, the Thornton Wilder play. I had a character called the Stage Manager, a narrator. The first night I did that I will never ever forget it. I was sixteen and I knew, standing on that stage and performing that part, that this was something I really really wanted to do. I dreamed of working in the theatre and I was told “you can’t do it, you can’t do it, you can’t do it” so I finished my A Levels and went and studied Economics because I was told I couldn’t even think about being an actor, it’s ridiculous. After six months of studying economics I was going absolutely stir crazy and I ended up working at Whitbreads in Chiswick on a summer break, thinking “I’ve got to go back for my second year – I just can’t do it”. I booked myself into classes in Holborn at the City Literary institute. They did acting, speech and movement classes four nights a week. I was there every night, realizing that I wanted to pursue theatre. I started going for auditions and was offered a place in East 15 acting school. I attended LAMDA and didn’t get offered a place, I attended Webber Douglas auditions, and I was offered a place at Rose Bruford and snapped it up and don’t regret a moment of it.

Is that why you do things like dressing as Elvis for the Ninjaman Clash in New York in 2007?

(laughs) Yes I think so. I remember that. I was clashing with Ninjaman and I knew that Ninjaman loved costumes so I was going to wear a ninja costume but then I thought “no, that’s too predictable. He’ll probably come in a ninja costume.” I was on tour in Japan and on a bullet train and the guy in front of me had a laptop and the host of this Japanese TV show had the most ridiculous Elvis and he was like 22 but it was ridiculous. And I thought, “Elvis… clash with Ninja… No it’s ridiculous”. That night, having dinner with Mighty Crown in an Italian restaurant in Osaka they were playing “You’re caught in a trap” Elvis. I said, “this has got to happen”. And I made the decision in Japan that I would do Elvis to clash Ninja. I came back here – actually got an official Elvis costume with the wig and everything – because in previous incarnations I’ve been an Indian Taxi driver and I go to theatrical costumers and get costumed up – I’ve even been a jockey in a horserace in various clashes over the years.

The security opened the door and tried to shut it again because I was standing out there in an overcoat and an Elvis costume. I said, "let me in please. I'm Rodigan"

The camera people go running over when they see you coming on? How did you keep it secret?

I was outside freezing cold in a truck, waiting to come in because I couldn’t let anyone see me. Ninjaman won the toss so he went first and played his 15 minutes and I heard them saying “this is the last song from Ninjaman” and they were phoning me saying, “this is the last song, get in here now”. So I knocked on the stage door of this big place in Queens – the Amazura – and the security opened the door and tried to shut it again because they thought I was a headcase – guy standing out there in an overcoat and an Elvis costume. I banged it and said, “let me in please. I’m Rodigan” and then someone else saw and said, “that’s Rodigan” so they let me in and I hid in a cupboard for a few more minutes. And then I had a dubplate with Richard Asprey an actor saying “we’re terribly sorry but David Rodigan is unable to perform tonight but he has sent a substitute selector from Las Vegas and I ran on as Elvis. I decided I would sing my own dubplate – I don’t know if that’s on the video but I sing “Ninja you caught in a trap, you can’t get out, Rodigan will kill you”.

You play regularly in London but you also play a lot in towns and cities outside. Those scenes are very diehard and committed aren’t they?

David RodiganI think when you live in a small community, a small town and some small cities I think the environment can breed a very intense passion. I remember living in Oxford where I was reared from my teenage years and we were very passionate about rocksteady and ska and soul. We were devoted. We had our scene and went to our clubs like the Bridge in Wheatley and those places. I think because it's harder to get and you look to London as the hub, the heartbeat, the beacon, but often the scene is more intense in a local community and more accessible as well.

What does the future hold?

As long as the phone rings and people want to book me I will always perform because Ken Dodd said “when you’re counting success don’t count money, count happiness” and he made a song called Happiness, The Greatest Gift That I Possess. I’m very happy doing this and I’m stealing Ken Dodd’s lyrics here but they interviewed him on Newsnight a few months ago and when they tried to bring up the word retirement he said, “Don’t you dare use that word!” and they said “why” and he said, “retiring is something people do when they’re sick and tired of doing what they’ve been doing and they start doing what they’ve always wanted to do. What I’ve always wanted to do is to make people laugh so I’m not retiring”.

As long as the phone rings and people want to book me I will always perform

That’s playing out and as we know touring is having a resurgence in the current climate. What’s the future of radio?

Radio is always going to be there. It’s an immediate medium in the way Youtube is immediate but it’s even more so because it’s talking to someone. That's the thing I’ve always loved about radio from when I first joined BBC Radio London. What they taught me there in my first tuition lesson in how to be a broadcaster was “You are being invited into someone’s home. Please behave accordingly. If you’re invited into someone’s home you wouldn’t start shouting or screaming at them. You would behave with dignity and respect. Be informative when it’s necessary to be informative. Do not be patronising. In being informative you are probably confirming something the listener already knows and if they don’t know they are learning it but don’t do too far down that road. Carefully choose the songs you are playing and be aware of the fact that they are precious and never crash a vocal.” That still stands and radio will always stand because of that. Why do I say this? Because when I first broadcast in Jamaica I realized the true power of radio. That Saturday night in 1983 when Barry G challenged me to a clash at 8 o clock during the news when I was supposed to be co-hosting the show with him, was a pivotal point in my career because he said Jamaicans love a contest. So from me just playing some songs and saying “I’m David Rodigan” it became a clash with Jamaica’s number one. Next day when we drove down to Belmont because we had a big show in Belmont where Peter Tosh was born – all you heard as we drove was cassette recordings from the night before. That showed me the power of radio particularly in a country like Jamaica where hardly anyone had a television in the early 80s in Jamaica and reception was limited but most people had radio. In The Harder They Come you’ll see a sequence where there was a guy walking down the street – just a long shot, not a character in the film – and he’s got the transistor radio to his ears. And if you go to Antigua you’ll see people on the street listening to the cricket on transistor radios – now that was the original rhythm box. You could hold it in your hand walk around with it. That is the instant power of radio is it not? And I don’t think radio will ever die. Pictures in the mind.

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